Could Slavery Have Ended Without the Civil War?

“But what about slavery?”

Anyone criticizing Abraham Lincoln, raising questions about the wisdom of the Civil War or pointing out the war’s political ramifications will inevitably encounter this question.

The question raises an understandable concern. Slavery was such a blight on the record of humanity that its end, no matter the manner, is naturally celebrated. And since the American mythology tells us that ending slavery was the North’s primary goal in the war – a debatable opinion – Americans associate emancipation with war and have a hard time understanding how slavery could have otherwise ended.

Should We Care How Slavery Ended?

To many, criticisms of the Civil War are puzzling. “The war ended slavery,” they say. “Isn’t that all we need to know?” But the Civil War was so monumentally destructive  – in both casualty counts and the broadscale destruction of liberty – that a critical examination of the conflict is not irrational.

Historian J. David Hacker recently revised the long-held estimate of 620,000 soldiers killed in the Civil War upward to 750,000. Of these numbers Eric Foner, a historian who is no fan of Civil War revisionism, stated, “It even further elevates the significance of the Civil War and makes a dramatic statement about how the war is a central moment in American history. It helps you understand, particularly in the South, what a devastating experience the war was.”

To put the number of deaths in perspective, the U.S. population in 1860 was 31.4 million people. The 750,000 deaths, most of whom were young men, represented about 2.4 percent of the population. That same percentage, applied to today’s population, would equal about 7.4 million people cut down in the prime of life. Not only was the Civil War the most deadly war in American history, but put in context it was downright catastrophic.

Beyond the battlefield casualties, there were an estimated 50,000 civilian deaths, mostly in the South, during the war. Add to this the destruction of infrastructure, the disruptions of the economy and the growth of oppressive government, and the question of whether there was an alternative path to emancipation, one that would have avoided the death and destruction that accompanied the war, is worth investigating.

Examples of Peaceful Emancipation

Slavery has existed throughout the vast majority of human history and across almost all cultures. It wasn’t until Westerners, guided by Christianity and the Enlightenment, began to oppose slavery in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, that the “peculiar institution,” as it was later called, was seriously challenged on a moral level.

Considerable work was needed to win hearts and minds to the abolitionist position and to overcome the entrenched economic interests that profited from slavery. Many European powers had to deal with the issue, if not within their own borders then within their empires. The history of how these countries ended slavery is an interesting comparison to the American Civil War, for in the vast majority of cases emancipation was the result of largely-peaceful, gradual processes of legislation, compensation and persuasion.

For example, in 1761, Portugal became the first Western nation to pass legislation prohibiting slavery, although the law applied only to the Portuguese mainland and its territories in India. Slavery would continue in Portugal’s colonies, including Brazil, for over a century.

Beginning in 1780, the northern United States also made advances towards the abolition of slavery. Most slaves were emancipated on a gradual basis, with the last slaves in the North being freed by the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. Slavery had peacefully vanished in most northern states by the 1840s.

Although slaves were never common in Great Britain, the British did profit both from participation in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and from slavery in their colonies. Nevertheless, due to the influence of abolitionists like William Wilberforce, Henry John Temple and Thomas Buxton, Britain banned the slave trade in 1807 and slavery itself in 1833. In addition to this, Britain became a force for anti-slavery sentiment and policies throughout the world, negotiating anti-slave trade agreements with other countries and policing the seas with their own navy to enforce these agreements.

Between the beginning of the nineteenth century and the outbreak of the Civil War, at least 15 countries in Europe and Central and South America abolished slavery or put it on the path to extinction. When Brazil abolished slavery in 1888, slavery in the Western Hemisphere was effectively ended. In all but two of these countries, the United States and Haiti, the end of slavery occurred without widespread violence. Peaceful emancipation, then, was not only possible, but was the norm.

Was Peaceful Emancipation a Better Option?

In Greatest Emancipations, historian Jim Powell surveys the history and heroes of the abolitionist movements in the West and contrasts the countries where emancipation was peaceful to those where it was brought about by war.

Powell believes that there were two important facets of abolitionism, emancipation itself and securing equal rights for the freed slaves. Powell convincingly makes the case that peaceful emancipation was a superior alternative to war because in countries where slavery was ended by armed conflict, “the savage violence of war and the inevitable backlash among losing slaveholders, made it much harder to arrive at a point where former slaveholders, former slaves and their descendants could live together peacefully in the same society.” Because of this, Powell believes that “multiple strategies had to be pursued,” including slave rebellions, compensation to slaveholders who freed their slaves and encouraging slaves to run away.

One of these ideas, compensated emancipation, was – and is – controversial. The idea that someone who claims ownership over another human being should be compensated for giving up that claim offends our moral sensibilities, and rightfully so. Several American abolitionists reached this conclusion and strongly opposed the idea.

It’s hard to disagree with the moral argument against compensated emancipation, but the historical truth is that it was a viable, if imperfect, option that was an important component of emancipation in many countries. It was certainly no worse a solution than the violence and destruction of war. As economist Thomas Sowell has observed, once slavery was established in a culture there was no perfect solution to bringing about its end.

Powell believes that compensated emancipation was a viable solution in the American South, explaining, “It probably wouldn’t have been necessary to buy the freedom of all the slaves, because when a combination of strategies reduced the population of slaveholder and slaves down to a certain point, it would have collapsed or been abolished without a catastrophic conflict.”

Secession: The Key to Peaceful Emancipation in the South

All of this brings us back to our original question: could slavery have ended in the South without the war? Would peaceful emancipation have even been possible? Powell and Jeffrey Rogers Hummel have both written of one surprising option that would have doomed slavery in the South: secession.

In Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men, Hummel observes that abolitionists had already recognized the dangers of secession to slavery before the Civil War. He writes that “letting the lower South secede in peace was a viable antislavery option. Radical abolitionists, such as William Lloyd Garrison, had traditionally advocated northern secession from the South. They felt that this best hastened the destruction of slavery…”

The modern reader naturally wonders how this could be true. The answer lies in understanding how crucial the federal fugitive slave laws were to maintaining slavery in the South. Released from their legal obligations to return slaves to their southern owners, northern states would have become destinations of freedom for fugitive slaves.

It is not difficult to understand how this would have worked. We know that the states in the Upper South did not secede until after President Lincoln prepared to invade the southern states that had already left the Union. If Lincoln and the North had not pursued war with the Lower South, it is likely that the Upper South states would never have seceded. Absent the political clout of the Lower South, political forces in the federal government could have quickly brought about emancipation in states like Virginia and North Carolina.

If slaves escaping to the Union, a Union that included Upper South states, could not be reclaimed by slaveholders in the Lower South, the cost of enforcing slavery would have increased and would have burdened the slaveholders themselves. Additionally, without the political protection of the federal government, the Lower South states, where slaves made up a larger percentage of the population, would have faced an increasing probability of large-scale slave revolts, thus further destabilizing the “peculiar institution.”

These points were understood by some Southerners. The Confederacy’s Vice-President, Alexander Stephens, believed that “slavery (is) much more secure in the Union than out of it.” Joseph Rogers Underwood, a Kentucky Congressman, warned Southerners in 1842 that “the dissolution of the Union was the dissolution of slavery” because of the ease with which slaves could escape to freedom in the North.

What’s more, this is not a purely theoretical scenario. Just such a process took place in Brazil, where gradual emancipation was proceeding at a pace too slow for Brazilian abolitionists. In 1884 a single state, Ceara, outlawed slavery and was eventually joined by other regions of Brazil. The impact of this, according to Hummel, was that

“Slavery rapidly disintegrated in the coffee growing region of Sao Paulo. The value of slaves fell by 80 percent despite the fact that none was slated to be liberated through gradual emancipation. Finally in 1888 the government accepted a fait accompli and decreed immediate and uncompensated emancipation.”

Powell believes that this same process would have occurred in the United States had the South been permitted to secede. He writes,

“…there would have come a time, much sooner than most people might expect, when the combined effects of multiple antislavery strategies would have brought about the fairly peaceful collapse of Confederate slavery. If this seems doubtful, just recall how a combination of pressures led the mighty Soviet Union to collapse and vanish from the map – without a (nuclear) war.”

Would Peaceful Emancipation Have Taken Too Long?

Even if slavery could have been ended peacefully, some argue that it would have taken too long. While it is true that this process would have been gradual, perhaps more gradual than the Civil War, Powell cautions against assuming that the Civil War was a better option, observing that “we need to remind ourselves that war wasn’t a shortcut. Wartime massacres inevitably provoked hatred and a lust for revenge that made a bad situation worse, delaying by decades the day when the hearts and mind of people might be changed for the better.”

While Americans are accustomed to thinking of emancipation in the context of war, careful consideration of the alternatives may lead us to conclude that war was ultimately unnecessary to end slavery. Importantly, war may have also significantly delayed the ability of the freed slaves to attain political and social equality. The changing of hearts and mind that war could not accomplish, and indeed never can, was ultimately essential to real freedom. Without this process, emancipated slaves and their descendants faced another century of legal oppression which, while better than slavery, was not freedom in a meaningful sense of the word.


Those who question the wisdom of the Civil War and decry its long-term political implications should take care to not insensitively toss aside the question of emancipation. It is true that the war damaged liberty, but political freedom would have meant nothing if some people were systematically excluded from it.

Hummel, a critic of the war, believes that it would have been justified, even with all its negative features, had it been the only way to end slavery. He writes, “…if we knew with absolute certainty that the war, with its enormous bloodshed and suffering, inflicted in many cases on the entirely innocent, was the only possible way to terminate such a horrid and vile institution, then it was justified. But it is impossible to know that.”

Contained within Hummel’s statement is the ultimate issue. We know how slavery was ended, but it is impossible to know exactly how else it could have been ended. There is compelling that suggests that ending slavery was not only possible without war, but was inescapable for even the most dedicated slaveholder. Slavery was ended in the West by 1888 and there’s no reason to believe that the southern United States could have resisted this trend. Economic, political and moral forces were all aligning against slavery. Any society that sought to preserve slavery would have been isolated on all of these grounds.

Powell believes that “The choice wasn’t to fight the Civil War or do nothing meaningful about slavery.” He continues, “We should stop viewing the Civil War as the only way or the best way freedom could have been achieved.” Powell is on to something. Not only did the war decrease the amount of political freedom that all Americans had, but it also contributed to the post-war environment that denied full freedom and equality to the emancipated slaves.

Peaceful emancipation, the path not taken, may have been a better long-term solution than the violent conflict that actually occurred.

Note: This article is part of a series on the Civil War. Click here to see all the articles in the series.